I am going to propose a theory to you now: that the most sublime distillation of the conceptual year known as ‘2020’ is here, in a 30-second video of Tiger King’s James Garretson, burnt to a rosy hue on an idling jet-ski, his own phone reflected in his aviators, joylessly recording a Cameo for a soon-to-be uncle and accusing Carole Baskin of murder again.
Or, perhaps, instead, this: Jeff Lowe, writhingly horny in a complexly-folded bandana–cap combo, exchanging a Cameo for an OnlyFans trial (a trade as ancient and as simple as Roman soldiers swapping flesh for salt), seemingly forever on the precipice of proposing a threesome through the screen itself, Jeff Lowe’s horniness so transcendent now that it threatens to emerge from the shackles of time and place, Jeff Lowe so horny he can fuck you through a 5G connection.
Or, instead, this: that the two trends – Netflix’s Tiger King, a tragic opus told through a shotgun hole in the side of a semi-permanent trailer; and Cameo, the website where slightly-famous people will talk to you for money – have come together in one perfect moment to summate the year 2020 itself, and, more than coronavirus, more than sourdough, more than Zoom and staying indoors a lot, that these two trends have defined the year more than any of your supposed ‘important world events’.
When historians look back on 2020 they will watch this nine-second clip of James Garretson shouting “I AGREE WITH ALL YOUR TWEETS”, strapped inside a heaving life jacket, and know that this year had challenges:
PART I: ON ‘TIGER KING’, AND UNDERSTANDING CAPTIVITY
The first episode of Tiger King dropped almost the exact second the entire planet shut down, and subsequent episodes dribbled out through those giddy early-lockdown weeks, when we all thought this would soon blow over and that ‘clapping out the windows’ might do something. Immediately it became a TV phenomenon. Was it a TV phenomenon because we are legally bound to stay inside the house, and Tiger King was the only TV that wasn’t dreadful news broadcasts or shonky Zoom-connection magazine shows? Yes, and also no: I would argue that a show with such a rich tapestry of a plot and diverse a cast of characters that it can go seven entire episodes before explaining why the guy with clown legs has clown legs – and the reason he has clown legs has absolutely nothing to do with tiger attacks – was always going to capture our collective imagination one way or another. It just happened to occur during arguably the most focussed moment of television-watching in all of human history.
Tiger King was a hit at the time because it was a thousand different stories at once: a man variously abandoned from his own family striking out and making an odd merry band of his own; how all-encompassing obsessive energy can be used roughly for good (looking after animals, though I’m willing to admit the moral case for doing that is treacle-dark) and roughly for bad (trying to murder someone because she dissed you on the internet); the long process of finding your ego, living your ego, and having your ego explode on you; how men with very tiny mouths who live sleeplessly in Las Vegas are perhaps not to be trusted.
But the longer I’ve spent indoors, the more – terrifyingly – I have found myself understanding Joe Exotic’s plight, because essentially: he built a world where he was the King; he created a place that was so insular and insane that he lost all real touch with reality; he got slightly too into a couple of weird hobbies and grew his hair out into a bizarre mullet. Is that not… all of us?
There have been times this year where I haven’t left my flat for a fortnight and my hair started growing out in the back like a wedge. I currently have a literal moustache that loved ones are too afraid to confront me about. I’ve tried and failed to learn the piano. The longer you sit in the filth of your own reality, the more your expectations adjust around it. Tiger King showed us what life in a cage can do to the human mind. Tiger King is a personal warning: that I am six weeks away from throwing a grenade at some alligators just to feel alive.
PART II: ON THE HYPER-VISIBILITY OF THE FRONT-FACING CAMERA
Over lockdown I sat on the sofa all day. Between the hours of 9am and 1pm I would fold my body over double to type on the coffee table in front of me; then I would sit upright for an hour to play PlayStation, same place, which was my ‘relaxation’ time; then back down to the coffee table for the afternoon; then I’d sit up for the evening to watch television. So every day I sat in the same place at different angles and didn’t really notice how bizarre I was going. It wasn’t very good.
I only realised the sofa situation was so acute when someone took a photo of me on the sofa, and I suddenly saw myself how I look to others, or at least to my TV. I had that strange, other-angle head rush you get when, for example, you walk on the other side of the street you live on, and I think this sensation goes some way to explaining our fascination with front-facing cameras this year: it shows us another angle of vision on life beyond the one that sprays out of our skulls at all times; it, even for just a fucking minute, allows us to imagine a reality outside of our own head.
Front-facing camera TikTok sketches and staring-at-yourself-on-a-Zoom-call all come from the same root – the technology for both existed long before this year did, but 2020 has made us turn the lens on ourselves more than ever before – and Cameo is in a perfectly primed position to take advantage of that.
I mean think about it: there is a slushy level of almost-celebrity that can only thrive in a world where things happen, and they need desperately to remind us they exist. Kim Kardashian doesn’t need Cameo, because Kim Kardashian will be famous forever – when the bombs drop and we are condemned underground to concrete bunkers she will still be able to promo shapewear beside her pool in Calabasas, because we will all still be following her on Instagram – but other, lowlier celebrities need shitty vodka launch parties and PR events and red carpets and afterparties to stumble out of, otherwise they cease to be (the perfect famous person, therefore, is Katie Price, who has maintained relevance through lockdown by breaking both her feet and getting a boyfriend: The Master).
There needs to be public events for celebrities to be seen at to maintain their celebrity so they can sell us charcoal toothpaste on Instagram because they’re famous: that is how the snake eats its tail. Without visibility, celebrity doesn’t exist. To that end, the Tiger King cast got famous at the exact wrong time to get famous*. Cameo allows them to reach back out to the audience that loves them, grab them by the collar, and say, “Please, pay me $200 and tell me the exact words I need to say to wish your brother ‘happy birthday’. I need this more than you can know.”
Cameo is intriguing because it completely remodels the relationship between the watchers and the watched: after years of celebrity feeling like an unattainable, untouchable level of society, now we can command the jesters to dance. Part of this is necessary – the people have to make money, somehow… the people have to stay relevant! – and part of it feels like this strange dark joke that we’re all playing on them, where we get to pay them to detachedly record us a happy birthday message in the 40-minute block they put aside each day for doing that, and we get to laugh about it when they say our names or nod to our in-jokes, but they don’t really feel it – they certainly don’t care – and we don’t really, either.
It feels like a strange new economy where money is changing hands but no one is really winning. When Carole Baskin made a shout-out video for Rolf Harris, for instance, the punchline wasn’t, “Carole Baskin got tricked into wishing a famed sex offender ‘happy birthday’,” but “Carole Baskin doesn’t care who the fuck you are if you have the requisite £248.17 to pay her to speak. She literally does not care if you live or you die.”
Part of me suspects the Cameo boom of 2020 predicts a new future for the world of celebrity: a weird back-to-basics, money-in-the-pocket, fuck-a-merch-line outreach system, where celebrities and cult figures alike allow us to buy from them a little of their cache – a digital meet-and-greet, a half-minute video of them saying your name and pretending they know you exist – and we pay them for the honour, a weird self-fulfilling system where they remain relevant just exactly as long as we sustain the prestige that they are.
In a world where you can’t really shake hands and sign photographs at the mall anymore, Cameo allows us to demand the attention of those we find interesting or glamorous, and they give it to us, on their own terms – sighing, fixed eyes at the camera, often in odd high afternoon hours, sticking semi-rigidly to a cheerful script – and we look at the video, laugh once, and then the world moves on.
In 2019, the closest we could get to tasting fame was buying a hoodie from a YouTuber, or a make-up palette from an Instagram MUA. Now we can pay Jeff Lowe to get horny in his conservatory by consecutively wishing 20 young women “happy birthday” until he climaxes.
In 2020, society might have stood still, but it never stopped evolving.
*This also applies to Paul Mescal, who made the mistake of being the hottest man on earth but only for the ten-week period where it was literally illegal to go out and shag new people, which all-told must go down as one of history’s most anguishing missed opportunities. Now Harry Styles has come back swinging with another androgynous photoshoot and taken the title back, and Paul Mescal is just a lad with no haircut again, and we are forever reminded that life is unfair.